Residents in North Korea were surprised Wednesday to learn that the North Korean men’s soccer team did not lose Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier match against South Korea.
The match, played in front of an empty 50,000 seat Kim Il Sung stadium in the capital Pyongyang, ended in a scoreless draw.
Sources say that residents think the empty stands might have been a ploy by the North to psych out the competition, while others thought it was because North Korea was expected to lose.
Aware that the media publishes propaganda, residents did not readily accept reports of the match ending in a draw.
“Frankly, South Korea has a better men’s soccer team, so everyone thought South Korea would win” a Pyongyang resident in Sinuiju, North Pyongan province on business told RFA’s Korean Service.
FIFA ranks the South Korean men 37th in the world, with North Korea ranked 113th.
The source said residents were surprised to learn that no spectators attended the match.
“They say it is strange that authorities didn’t organize a cheering squad or an audience for the historic inter-Korean match,” the source said.
The last time the two Korean men’s teams played in Pyongyang was in 1990, which North Korea won 2-1 in its only victory against the South.
“Perhaps it was a strategy to isolate the South Korean players,” the source said.
The source said residents mocked the idea that the stadium was kept empty to give the North Koreans an advantage.
“People have knee-jerkingly dubbed the event as the “Hongsan-gol” match,” the source said.
Hongsan-gol was the location of a battle supposedly fought by the Korean independence army, led by North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung, against the Japanese in the 1930s.
According to the largely mythical North Korean account of that battle, Kim lured a Japanese army unit into an empty valley that the independence army had surrounded from a higher position, resulting in the Japanese being completely wiped out.
The source said residents derided the authorities “vulgar behavior,” joking that they were trying the same strategy in a soccer match.
Consequences of defeat
Another source from Pyongyang said that young people in the capital were relieved by the result.
“If South Korea had won, we know how humiliating that would have been, and how they will be held to account,” the second source said, implying that the players would be punished for losing against the South at home.
The second source said that the current political climate of souring North-South ties made it so that a loss in this particular match would have been unacceptable.
“As working-level negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. broke down in Sweden [earlier this month] in Sweden, and relations between North and South Korea deteriorating, public mood in our country is sensitive and tense,” the second source said.
“[During times like this], if they were to lose a [Men’s] World Cup qualifier against our rival South Korea at Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang, no one knows what the fate of the players will be,” the second source added.
A third source, a resident from North Pyongan province, said that normally residents would have been encouraged to attend the match.
“Ordinary residents could buy tickets to the matches at ticket booths on the streets of Pyongyang,” the third source said.
The third source suggested that the stadium was kept empty because authorities were afraid that North Korean spectators might be too eager to see the South Korean team.
“It is obvious that Pyongyang citizens, who show great interest in South Korean culture and sports, would have flocked to the stadium,” the third source said.
“The fact that no audience or cheering squads were allowed into the stadium is evidence of how the authorities are wary that their citizens actually love the South.”
South Korea had attempted reach out to the North prior to Tuesday’s match to discuss bringing a delegation of South Korean broadcasters and fans with the team, but the overture was ignored.
The two sides will face off again in another qualifier match scheduled for June 2020 in South Korea.
Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.